Biology and Politics: Volume 9


Table of contents

(16 chapters)

Biopolitics is not altogether a felicitous term used to describe the approach of those political scientists who use biological concepts, with neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory at the center, and biological research techniques to study, explain, predict, and sometimes even to prescribe political phenomena.

Safe haven laws arose as a compassionate response to the perceived increase in the number of mothers who killed their infants or abandoned them in unsafe places, such a dumpsters, toilets, outdoors, etc. (Appell, 2002b; Sanger, 2006). The policy problem of infant abandonment arrived on the local policy agenda in Mobile, Alabama in 1997 and early 1998. During that time, 20 infants were reported abandoned. In one case, a mother and grandmother drowned an hour-old infant in a toilet, and each received a 25-year prison sentence (Sanger, 2006). In response to this case, the program called “A Secret Safe Place for Newborns” was established. Prosecutors promised anonymity and immunity if the infant was relinquished unharmed. In 1999 Texas also experienced a surge in abandoned babies – 13 were abandoned in a 10-month period, 3 of whom died. Texas' Baby Moses Law was the nation's first safe haven law passed in 1999. Within two years, dozens of states passed safe haven laws with little debate, analysis, or opposition (Baran, 2003; Sanger, 2006). In order to reduce the occurrences of neonaticide and infanticide in which infants were left to die, all 50 states in the United States have passed safe haven laws.

One fundamental question in normative ethics concerns how norms influence human behavior and discussions within normative ethics would be facilitated by a classification that treats human actions/behavior and moral norms within the same functional framework. Based on evolutionary analysis of benefits and costs, we distinguish five categories of human action. Four of these – self-interest, kin selection, group egoism, and cooperation – are basically results of gene selection, benefit the individual's genetic interest and may be described as “broad self-interest.” In contrast, the fifth category, unselfishness, is more likely a result of cultural influences. All the five categories of action are influenced by three broad moral spheres, each of which represents many norms that have a common denominator. Thus, a sphere of integrity concerns the individual's right to act in his/her interest and against those of other individuals. A sphere of reciprocal morality deals with rules for various forms of cooperation. An altruistic sphere has to do with the obligations to generate advantages for others. Ethics can be viewed as a dynamic conflict among various norms within and between these spheres. The classical conflict is that between the integrity and altruistic spheres. However, we argue that the prime antagonism may be that between the altruistic and reciprocal spheres; the main impact of altruistic ideals may not be the reputed one of counteracting egoism, but subversively thwarting reciprocal morality.

In this chapter, I use the term “biopolitics” to mean evolutionarily informed political science. Politics has been characterized as “Who gets what, when, and how” (Lasswell, 1936), but rather than about material possessions, politics is understood to be about power, more specifically about collective power, especially differential group power competition, hierarchy and stratification in power distribution, and the universal struggle to enhance power, and to maintain or challenge/destroy this status quo. Politics “should be found in any system of nature in which conflicts of interest exist among cooperating organic units” (Johnson, 1995, p. 279). My main focus will be competitive intergroup relations in monkeys and apes, or as I (van der Dennen, 1995) called it “intergroup agonistic behavior” (IAB). I also briefly treat interindividual and intercoalitionary agonistic behavior when relevant.

Measurement is probably the most classical empirical process independent of time period or area of study. The title of this chapter suggests that a discussion of how to measure when approaching the borders of social and natural sciences is what follows, but this is somewhat misleading. Good measurement is independent of how the measures are used. Measures smothered with error, on the contrary, will be bad measures.

Political scientists have taken up behavior genetics (BG) at a momentous time in the science of genetics. Momentous, because the science of genetics is undergoing a paradigm shift [Petronis, A. (2010). Epigenetics as a unifying principle in the aetiology of complex traits and diseases. Nature, 465(7299), 721–727]. This shifting paradigm poses a significant challenge to both the prevailing methodologies of behavior genetics – twin, family, adoption studies – and one of the most noteworthy findings to emerge from such studies, that is, which we can call the principle of minimal parental effects. This is the supposition that the effect of the shared parental rearing environment on the behavioral phenotypes of offspring is statistically equivalent to zero (Plomin & Daniels, 1987). It is not uncommon nowadays to find twin, adoption, and family studies utilized in the study of political behavior (e.g., Alford, J., Funk, C. L., & Hibbing, J. R. (2005). Are political orientations genetically transmitted? American Political Science Review, 99(2), 153–167.); likewise, the principle of minimal parental effects is frequently invoked in such studies (e.g., Mondak, J. J., Hibbing, M. V., Canache, D., Seligson, M. A., & Anderson, M. A. (2010). Personality and civic engagement: An integrative framework for the study of trait effects on political behavior. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 85–110.). As we shall see, the challenge comes from recent discoveries in genetics that are radically transforming our understanding of the genome and its relationship to environment.

The 2005 APSR article by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbing presented data from the Virginia 30,000 Health & Lifestyle Questionnaire (VA30K), AARP twin studies, and an Australian twin study (ATR) to test their hypothesis that political attitudes are influenced by genetic as well as environmental factors. Political attitudes, they suggested, were expected to be highly heritable and particularly so on issues most correlated with personality. They employed survey responses from the Wilson–Patterson Attitude Inventory to measure political attitudes. To gauge heritability, they utilize the 2:1 genetic ratio between monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins. The authors argued that while previous studies in political attitudes had concentrated on measuring the influence of environmental variables, their test added explanatory power by considering heritability (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005).

While the field of criminology is rooted in sociological tradition, biosocial criminology has emerged as a promising perspective in studying antisocial behaviors. This perspective encompasses the research from other scientific disciplines, namely behavioral genetics and molecular genetics. At its core, biosocial criminology views criminal behavior as a function of both the social environment as well as biological/genetic factors. This chapter will provide a description of the prominent methodologies used in behavioral genetics and molecular genetics, a review of the empirical research, an overview of some of the statistical and methodological issues, as well as a discussion on the potential avenues for future research.

In recent years, social scientists have begun exploring the neurological foundations of behavior in an attempt to gain a more complete understanding of decision-making in the realms of both politics and economics (see Cacioppo & Viser, 2003; Fowler & Schreiber, 2008; McDermott, 2009; Caplin & Schotter, 2008).

As one of the most dynamic and consequential areas of biomedical research, neuroscience must be analyzed in a broader political context. Research initiatives, individual use, and aggregate social consequences of unfolding knowledge about the brain and the accompanying applications require particularly close scrutiny because of the centrality of the brain itself to human behavior and thoughts. As one of the last frontiers of medicine, neuroscience has strong support because it promises to benefit many patients suffering from an array of behavioral, neurological, and mental disorders and injuries. Given the inevitability of expanded strategies for exploration and therapy of the brain, it is important that the political issues surrounding their application be clarified and debated before such techniques fall into routine use.

Political science is often derided for being a “soft” science, one unable to generate hard predictions about political behavior, or without the ability to test its hypotheses, unlike physics, biology, or, among the social sciences, economics. Standards of hypothesis testing, data collection, and testing were unfairly seen to be lacking in comparison with the hard sciences. Accordingly, political scientists often had to struggle to have the knowledge produced about political behavior taken seriously. It would not be too remiss to identify an inferiority complex among political scientists, when they discussed the pantheon of scientific disciplines and their low position in it.

Publication date
Book series
Research in Biopolitics
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN